Betsy Sheerr Leads Hebrew Center Institute


The summer speaker series put on by the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, explained Betsy Sheerr, is not a Jewish thing, although she explained its motivation - and her own - in distinctly Jewish terms.

"There is in Judaism an important concept of repairing the world: Tikun olam," said the new chairman of the center's Summer Institute.

"And in the Jewish tradition, education is highly valued too. So I look at the Summer Institute as it's tied to the tradition of Judaism to value learning, to welcome discussion and to welcome engagement with the world around us."

And while many, if not most of the guest speakers are Jewish, Mrs. Sheerr said: "I think of it as a seaside think tank [and] cultural center for the Island.

"Our intent is to engage the entire Island, to give all the people who live here and visit here an opportunity to discuss the issues of the day. The other thing that's very important is that many national experts have a connection to the Vineyard, live or summer here. Wherever possible we look for a Vineyard connection.


"We invite leading thinkers and activists of our time. We've had Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, university presidents hospital presidents, advocates, writers, people who are very accomplished in their fields. Sometimes they're controversial."

Mrs. Sheerr herself is both something of an activist on behalf of liberal political causes and, as a result was a little controversial before she took over the job of running the Summer Institute.

She is content to let this year's program of speakers, which kicks off next Wednesday night, serve as a testament to her determination to provide a balanced program - counter-terrorism expert Steve Emerson with his dark view of Islamic terrorism on the one hand, Ambassador Dennis Ross with his dark view of America's decline in international diplomacy on the other.

Other topics range from children's literature to architecture to the ethics of philanthropy to the future of urban planning.

It's a program of wide scope and big names, none of them paid, which means Mrs. Sheerr and her organizing committee have to rely on other enticements. Primarily geographical and personal enticements.

"What they get is a holiday [accommodation paid] on Martha's Vineyard," she said, adding:

"And the whole committee knows people. This is an Island where people who live here full time, or visit, have connections to the great thinkers, or are the great thinkers.

"I know a few of these people myself, because I've always been involved in community activities and civic affairs across the country and I've had the chance to meet some very interesting people."

She continued: "Ambassador Dennis Ross, for example, who I think will be a huge draw, is someone whom I've worked with, as have some of the others on the committee. Daniel Liebeskind, the architect, is somebody whom I had met at the dedication of the Jewish museum in Berlin."

Betsy Sheerr is connected. She owns a consulting business which "polishes" senior corporate people in the arts of presentation.

"I work with all kinds of high-stakes presentations - generally CEOs, CFOs, people who are in the front line, who need to present, in some cases for, say, mergers and acquisitions or in some cases are taking their companies public. I do a fair amount of work with pharmaceutical companies, to present to the FDA or medical conferences. I coach people who need, sometimes, a bit of polishing to add to their skills set," she said.

That's her full time occupation. But she is also a self-confessed political junkie.

"Part of it is because I'm a strong patriot. I think the American system, although flawed, is the best there is. We have a political system that welcomes its citizens to take an active part; I take that seriously," she said, harking back to the tikun olam thing.

She's a major booster for the Democratic Party. In a couple of weeks she will put on a fund-raiser for the senior senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu. Last year, she worked on behalf of Sen. Maria Cantwell from Washington state, and - she is particularly pleased - for Bob Casey, who is now senator for Pennsylvania, having replaced Rick Santorum. "Who we were very happy to see retired," she said.

After the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in southeast Asia, Mrs. Sheerr twice visited the devastated areas of Aceh, Thailand and Sri Lanka to help provide aid.

"I was in charge of dispensing about $18 million raised for tsunami victims on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee," she said. "I was working out which NGOs [nongovernment organizations] we would partner with. We wanted to use local workers and local resources as much as possible, to help rebuild the economy.

"I went there a few months after the tsunami, and then again about a year later to see the progress."

It is hard to deny the woman's energy or her determination to be a change agent.

There will be some changes to the format of this year's speaker series too. Instead of just a single presenter, some will be paired.

Ethicist Peter Singer, who believes that true philanthropy must be directed to those in greatest need, will speak alongside Island resident Charles Harff, who is active in home-grown charity. Daniel Libeskind will be interviewed by the architecture critic for the Boston Globe, Robert Campbell.

And the last presentation, on the future of the American city, by the mayor of Newark, N.J., will be cosponsored with the NAACP and the venue will be moved to the Whaling Church in Edgartown to accommodate an expected large crowd.

"In my mind," she said, "I have a three-year plan. Can't tell you yet but we have some extraordinary thinkers of our time."